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Venezuela Celebrates Castro's Birthday - 2001-08-13

On the eve of his 75th birthday, Cuban leader Fidel Castro visited the rainforest and spectacular Angel Falls in southeastern Venezuela Sunday, escorted by his host, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. The tour came on the second day of Mr. Castro's visit to Venezuela a trip seemingly aimed at dispelling doubts about the aging Cuban leader's health.

After spending Saturday honoring each other and discussing politics, the two leaders Sunday flew over the Canaima tropical forest and the dramatic Angel Falls located in a remote region of southeastern Venezuela.

The tour was President Chavez's birthday gift to Mr. Castro, who turns 75 on Monday. On Saturday, Mr. Chavez led thousands of people in singing "Happy Birthday" to the Cuban leader. He then praised Mr. Castro as being "bulletproof," an allusion to the numerous assassination attempts against the Communist leader.

Mr. Castro's visit is his first foreign trip since he fainted during a speech in Cuba June 23 raising doubts about his health. These doubts may not have been dispelled on this trip, since he appeared to tire easily and was visibly affected by the tropical heat.

Mr. Chavez, who was elected President in 1998, has developed a close political relationship with Mr. Castro. He opposes the U.S. embargo against Cuba, and, like the Cuban leader, often criticizes what he calls the excesses of the free-market system.

A former paratrooper who led a failed coup in 1992, Mr. Chavez remains popular in Venezuela, but also has generated opposition over what his critics say are his authoritarian tendencies and his populist rhetoric. Mr. Chavez, who was overwhelmingly re-elected President under a new constitution last year, has repeatedly denied he wants to turn Venezuela into a Cuban-style communist system.

President Castro is expected to remain in Venezuela until Monday, when he returns to Havana where preparations are underway to celebrate his birthday. Before leaving, Mr. Castro is expected to meet with Brazilian President Fernando Enrique Cardoso who will be visiting Venezuela to inaugurate a hydroelectric dam.